Thursday, 24 November 2011

A grey day, with berries

Hips of the dog rose in the morning mist

It’s gloomy outside – the kind of day that words like ‘dank’ and ‘drear’ were invented for. But peering through the nullifying fog that hangs heavy in the air, cancelling out familiar views and making us feel like strangers in our own gardens, something rich and rather magnificent calls for attention. Winking, jewel-like clusters of opulent splendour, fat with food for the birds and creatures who share our autumn gardens, the berries take centre stage at this time of year, bringing colour and joy to our surroundings when all around is fading into winter gloom.

In many a garden the scene is stolen by always reliable pyracanthas and cotoneasters, with their showy displays in fiery oranges, yellows and reds, though there are many other genera to choose from when it comes to stocking the garden with berrying plants. The rowan, or mountain ash Sorbus aucuparia, is a wonderful tree suitable for a small garden. Providing year-round interest with its pinnate leaves which turn a rich red in autumn, its slightly bitter berries are used to make rowan jam, a traditional accompaniment to venison and other gamey dishes. Climbing plants, too, make a valuable contribution to the garden’s berry quota: honeysuckle, bittersweet Celastrus orbiculatus, and of course, ivy, with its understated black fruits nestling amongst the mature, shiny leaves.

If I have a guilty secret to confess to as a gardener, it’s that I’m not as fond of roses as I feel I ought to be – other than at this time of year when most of the leaves have fallen. Now the plants are revealed as thorny skeletons with plump, bright hips: some smooth and long, others large and round as a tomato, as with R. rugosa. Appropriately, Bill seems particularly partial to the fallen hips of the dog rose R. canina that arches over the garden gate and so, having first done a little research to ensure these were harmful to neither man nor hound, I decided to try one myself. No wonder then that people make jam from these. They’re practically ready-made jam: thick, sickly fruity goo – one hip was almost too rich a meal – which explains why our winter garden visitors find them such a rich source of food.

But it is in the hedgerows that my favourite berries lurk. Bright red berries of holly and yew against glossy, dark green foliage, dusky blue sloes on the blackthorn, orange-red gems of the guelder rose and the garish fruits of the winged spindle, whose vivid, pink cruciform capsules split open to reveal bright orange seeds. Now is the time to get out into the garden and make the most of the berries. Before the birds beat you to it.

Yellow berries on the firethorn Pyracantha ‘Soleil D’Or’

Mature ivy plants provide a good habitat in which wildlife can overwinter,
as well as berries which are a rich source of food.

Holly, the heraldic symbol for truth, and traditionally a wood for  making
bagpipes. But used more often by overwintering birds for food and shelter.

The rowan tree Sorbus aucuparia provides year round interest,
including fantastic autumnal shades